We never gave up hope, avalanche survivors say

‘TRULY A MIRACLE’::Giorgia Galassi credited Vincenzo Forti’s strength for helping keep her spirits up, along with his focus on seeking solutions to their predicament

AP, GIULIANOVA, Italy

Fri, Jan 27, 2017 - Page 6

First there was a loud roar. Then darkness — hours and hours of darkness.

A couple among the nine survivors of an Italian avalanche that devastated a mountain hotel say they survived nearly 58 hours buried beneath meters of snow by sucking on glass and mud-filled ice, comforting each other and those nearby, and praying.

The initial shock was so loud and the force so strong that the couple — 22-year-old Giorgia Galassi and her boyfriend, 25-year-old Vincenzo Forti — said on Wednesday that they were convinced it was another earthquake rocking the luxury Hotel Rigopiano.

They never considered the threat of an avalanche at the snow-bound resort.

“I don’t think anyone imagined it. We didn’t know until the firefighters told us. We thought the whole time it was a very strong earthquake,” Galassi said in her parents’ living room in the town of Giulianova, sitting next to Forti.

She wore a necklace of an angel that a friend had just given her, celebrating their survival.

Galassi and Forti were two of the nine people pulled out alive after the avalanche on Wednesday last week in which 29 others died.

They said they were scared, but never gave up hope that they would survive.

They had arrived at the luxury hotel the evening before the deadly avalanche, undeterred by the accumulating heavy snow.

When it hit the next afternoon, they were gathered with the other guests ready to leave, sitting in a tea room or standing in the adjacent entry hall, waiting for a snowplow to clear the 9km road through Gran Sasso park so they could go home.

Galassi said she was particularly fearful of the temblors that had started that morning and had waited outside for a while, but she went back into the hotel due to the cold and after the hotel management’s assurances that it had resisted previous earthquakes.

It wasn’t long before a loud roar announced the tragedy.

“It all started from a rumble and then everything collapsed. A roar, what can I say, a roar,” Forti told a news conference at a hotel later on Wednesday.

After the shock of finding themselves beneath a wicker chair that protected them from a beam, Galassi and Forti said the first relief was realizing they were not alone.

“When we fell, when everything fell on top of us, we yelled: ‘Is anyone alive? We are alive,’” Galassi said. “Then we heard another voice and we were relieved.”

When they looked up, they had just 50cm between their heads and the ceiling. The space was less than that of a single bed, Forti said.

Behind them, they could see ice through a hole in the glass panel that they could reach if they stretched out. That ice was their lifeline.

“At times there was even glass and mud [in the ice], but it was survival,” Galassi said.

For a while, their mobile phones gave them some light. Then the dark came.

The young couple huddled together in the tiny space, sitting at first and then lying down to sleep, using Galassi’s fur coat and a blanket they found nearby for warmth.

Forti said heat from the fireplace near where they had been sitting kept the temperatures comfortable for many hours. Rescuers have also told journalists that the survivors were insulated by the meters of snow on top of them, which created an igloo effect.

During the interminable wait for help, they spoke with Francesca Bronzi, another survivor on the other side of the beam. Bronzi had a watch and helped them keep track of time.

They could also hear a mother with her son nearby, who turned out to be Adriana Vranceanu and her eight-year-old son Gianfilippo, both of whom also survived.

Vranceanu’s husband, Giampaolo Parete, was outside when the avalanche hit and sounded the alarm. Their six-year-old daughter, Ludovica, was pulled from the rubble with the two other children staying at the hotel, who spent nearly two days alone together in a billiard room.

Galassi said she passed the time in prayer.

“I don’t think I have ever prayed so much in my life,” Galassi said.

Despite their conviction that help would arrive, there were moments of despair and they took turns comforting each other.

Galassi said they first heard rescuers at about 11am on Friday last week — nearly two days after the avalanche — when they heard Vranceanu speaking to a voice they had not heard before.

“When I heard she was speaking with someone, I yelled: ‘Who are you speaking to?’ She said: ‘I am speaking with Mauro, who is a rescuer. They came to save us.’ They said to stay calm, that they would pull us out.”

“We started to yell and to knock to make ourselves heard, and after a while he also came to talk to us,” Galassi said.

Within a short time, they were free.

Galassi credited Forti’s strength for helping keep her spirits up, along with his focus on seeking solutions to their predicament. She said the ordeal had only strengthened their bond.

“We said even this happened to us and we got out together,” Galassi said. “I believe it is truly a miracle.”

The couple said they were relieved to hear all four children staying at the hotel had survived, but they are haunted by the deaths of so many of their companions, including Bronzi’s boyfriend.

“I think thank God that I am safe, but I am very sorry, truly deeply, because I knew these people and I saw the terror in their eyes. These people had children,” Galassi said. “It could have happened even to me. It could have happened to him.”